3D Printing: What’s the Hype and Hope About?

Full disclosure: Twelve months ago, if you had told me that I would be the CEO of a 3D printing company one year into the future, I would have laughed out loud. You see, one year ago, I was entering into my seventh year running the team that plans, builds and deploys Google’s worldwide cloud infrastructure. A dream job, yes, but one that I was growing mentally and physically tired from seven years of constant non-stop activity and growth – and I needed a change. As much as I hated to admit it, even I recognized the signs of burn-out.

My original plan was to sit on a beach for six months to decompress, recharge, and think about the future of technology, my life and eventually forge a new path forward. As they say, the best laid plans…

Silicon Valley is geographically fairly large, but in many ways, it’s pretty small and the rumors of my imminent departure from Google were starting to spread. Sure, I entertained a few opportunities in the Cloud space, but I really wanted to do something fundamentally different. I was largely successful at finding a myriad of excuses to avoid talking to people about the “next thing.”  But, when Khosla Ventures calls, you don’t avoid that call. You see, Vinod Khosla is venture capital’s analog to the New York Yankee’s of MLB. Love them or hate them, you can’t ignore (or avoid) them and so started my journey in the world of 3D printing. The (rather short) conversation went something like this:

Recruiter: “Hey, I have a very interesting opportunity for you!”

Me: “Huh….yeah….what is it?”

Recruiter: “An incredible opportunity to be the CEO of a Khosla-backed 3D printing company”

Me: “Ha! No way! I’m not touching 3D printing.

Now, you may ask, how could I respond to an opportunity in a technology space that’s been touted as something so profound that it’s going to change every supply chain and manufacturing model on the face of the planet? Simple: it’s been chewed up and spit out by the much vaunted “hype cycle” and I wasn’t drinking the Kool-Aid anymore, I’d seen enough.

For the past 13 years, I’ve attended the post-Christmas technology SuperBowl in Las Vegas called the Consumer Electronics Show (also known as CES). Trust me, it’s a technology nerd-fest (and this is coming from a self-confessed nerd!). Now, I’ve always had a passing interest in 3D printing (I’m certainly not immune to the hype cycle) and for as long as I’ve remembered, I’ve strolled past the 3D printing area of CES hoping and waiting to see something really impressive. However, my hopes were always dashed by the same well-worn booths displaying the same plastic trinkets every year. These trinkets inevitably migrated from their hands to my backpack to a hidden recess of my office over the next 12 months – only to have the process repeat itself perennially like some sullen Canadian goose on its annual migration south for the winter. This was the sad, yet vivid emotion that jumped out when the recruiter called.

Well, persistence paid off on the recruiter’s part, because she was insistent that this company was different (and truth be told I was curious if it really was different). Like Fox Mulder says: “I want to believe!” And after some close examination of the space and new opportunity, I began to.

So what is truly different in the 3D industry today and why is it real this time?

    1. Digitization – In the past few years, we’ve seen a move to have everything connected to the Internet and everything that is connected to the Internet is a vast pipeline for information that feeds software models. 3D printers are no different. Just as we started to employ machine learning to sort through and extract useful information on your mobile phone and on the world-wide-web, we’ve started to employ that same technology on a vast network of 3D printers to improve design and manufacturing – to truly enable printing “impossible objects.”
    2. IoT and Digital Twins – Further enabled by the avalanche of digitization, we now truly possess the capability to utilize a world that sits at the nexus of atoms and bits – software models that predict how the parts behave in-situ and with integrated sensors. This enables new design paradigms, service models and supply chains that will transform how we interact with the physical world.
    3. Cloud Computing and Vast Compute Power: Thanks to Google, Amazon and Microsoft, we now possess unparalleled compute capacity literally at our fingertips. This vast amount of (almost) free compute power enables us to simulate in software how the real world (including basic material science) performs. We now have the capability to simulate and fabricate a part that for all intensive purposes behave identically in the physical and virtual world.
    4. True 3D printing: Here’s the dirty little secret of the vast majority of the 3D printing world: it’s NOT 3D printing! It’s really 2D or 2.5D printing. Most 3D printing works by solidifying a plastic or metal powder on a flat plate and then stepping the part up vertically to have the next layer printed. After the printing is completed, you have a part that consists of a bunch of layers cemented together – and you have a 3D object.  However, most of these parts (with the exception of some metal 3D printing) have a fundamental weakness between these layers that make it very limited in the real world – except for prototypes or for mold-making. Fortunately, there are some emerging fabrication techniques that print in True 3D and provide structural integrity for real-world parts in all dimensions.
    5. Large format printers: Most 3D printers on the market today have build volumes that limit part sizes to a few feet in size – suitable for many parts, but no one will consider building a Formula 1 race car or a jet airplane with these printers. Several companies are employing large format industrial robots and custom robots to fabricate large parts (like automobile bodies).
    6. High strength materials – We’re just starting to see plastics with embedded carbon fiber filaments that provide strength which exceeds that of steel or aluminum many times over.  As these types of materials proliferate in the 3D printing space, we will continue to see 3D printing applications that evolve from limited-use prototypes to full-scale production parts.
    7. Economics – In the end, economics will play an equal or larger role than physics. As the throughput and speed of 3D printing increase, favorable economics will pave the way for more 3D printed parts and applications. That said, mature, high-volume repetitive manufacturing processes such as injection-molding will continue to be economically favored over 3D printing for the foreseeable future. 3D printing is a valuable fabrication method, but it still has its pro’s and cons like any alternative fabrication process.

Our current state of 3D Printing and Additive Manufacturing is somewhat like the late 90’s dot-com era – when every variant of application was tried. However, in the end, business Darwinism ruled the day: we did not re-invent economics (remember calls for the Dow 60,000?) and companies like Amazon and Google that had sound business models emerged from the rubble to rule the day. I suspect that we’ll see a similar dynamic in the area of 3D Printing and Additive Manufacturing with equal excitement and exuberance.